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The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays by Anthony Vidler

The book is a call for an urbanistic approach to architectural design

This latest book from architectural historian and theorist Anthony Vidler is a very welcome reminder that his enormous scholarly range extends not only from studies of architecture and architects in relation to psychoanalysis and other forms of critical theory, and often focuses on accounts ofEnlightenment architects and theorists such as Ledoux and Laugier, but also commonly incorporates a strong and impassioned urban thematic approach. The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays thus overtly places and considers modern architecture in the context of urban planning, urban design and urbanism in general.

As a historian, Vidler’s concern here is not so much as to construct a direct engagement with these issues as they present themselves today, but rather to undertake a reflective and contextual analysis of how a wide spectrum of urbanistic ideas - ranging from psychogeography, surveillance and traffic networks to economics, social relations and socio-political notions of citizenry - have been given visual and spatial form in projects both built and unbuilt. As Vidler himself puts it, this is a history of the development of cities that might be considered as ‘the construction of social knowledge in space

On one level, this collection of various essays - republished here largely without any major alterations or updating - gives an insight into Vidler’s own development of thought as one of the most influential of architectural historians, an insight that is aided by his comments about his various tutors and mentors in the preface. Even more fascinating, though, are the actual subjects of the various essays, which are explored here in a manner that iswithout exception at once erudite, scholarly, fascinating and insightful.

Most significant of all is the volume’s eponymous essay ‘The Scenes of the Street: Transformation in Ideal and Reality, 1750-1871’, first written in the mid-1970s and published in 1978 as part of Stanford Anderson’s influential study On Streets. Vidler’s extended account - with over 110 pages, it comprises a mini-book more than an essay - covers over 150 years of history, bringing the streets of London, Manchester and, in particular, Paris to life in such a way that invokes not only their lived experience but more importantly the ideas, metaphors and passions which they represented and occasionally even helped create.

Also of note in the volume are ‘The Modern Acropolis’, an account of the oft-overlooked Cité Industrielle and other work of Tony Garnier; ‘The Space of History’, an exploration of urban spatial typologies; and ‘Photourbanism’, a brief yet revealing study of aerial photography. Other essays cover subjects as diverse as factory communities in the 18th century; the novelist Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s utopian imagery; Georges Bataille and the obelisk as symbol; Le Corbusier’s urban forms and the psychogeographic mappings of Guy Debord, as well as other situationist activists and artists.

Yet this book is far more than simply a collection of disparate works, as is implied by their organisation in terms of the chronology of their subject matter, which ranges from the 18th-century Enlightenment space of Paris, Blondel and Boullée right through to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Mitterand and Perrault. In particular, when reading these essays today with contemporary architectural trends and modern urban conditions in mind, it is clear that implicit throughout the book is a call for a more urbanistic approach to architectural design.

As Vidler himself makes clear in his very useful and revealing preface, although these essays do not launch a polemic or an attack on iconic signature buildings, nostalgic new urbanism or any other such recent architectural trend, they do instead collectively imply - as all good history does - that our current approaches to architecture and urbanism are at once not without precedent and not without options.

Vidler’s approach to history is therefore neither to valorise the present nor to somehow resurrect the past. Instead what we learn from The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays is the simple importance and inherent richness of urbanistically informed and city-conscious architecture.

This book may have been written some time ago, and its overt subjects may be largely historical in scope, but it nevertheless maintains a timely relevance to current debates about sustainable urbanism and the cultural value of architecture, public space and urban design.

The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays

Author: Anthony Vidler

Publisher: Monacelli Press, 2011

Price: £32

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